My question regards properly balancing games with a high skill ceiling; one unattainable by the developer himself.

For example, Halo is a game with a low skill-ceiling. Master Chief has limited mobility in-game, can only equip 2 guns, and the guns are all pretty standard. Most situations have only a couple of ways to play out, and escape from sticky situations primarily depends on the player's loadout and aim. Fancy high-skill tricks aren't available to players in Halo. Players primarily improve in Halo by improving their situational awareness and aim; skills common to all FPS games. This is not hard for me to imagine balancing.

Rocket League OTOH is a game with a very high skill ceiling, and a rather unique concept / feel. Moreover, Rocket League is the type of game I can see myself developing, but not being very good at myself. The concept is simple, but the number of ways to succeed in a given scenario is hugely dependent on a player's skill and imagination.

This kind of high skill ceiling does not only apply to games of technical skill like Rocket League. For example I consider WoW, DotA, Star Craft, Magic the Gathering, Settlers of Catan, and Minecraft to be games with high skill ceilings as well.

How do low-skill developers approach creating and balancing features within their games which satisfies players vastly more imaginative and technically skilled than themselves?


4 Answers 4


Much of high-level playtesting is done by the users in games like Rocket League and League of Legends.

The developers do the best they can to come up with playbalanced stuff, then the best of the players put that to the test. Then after gathering data, the developers make adjustments.

In the case of LoL, they test changes on their "PBE", which is a seperate set of servers where real players who opt in can try out the new features before they go live. Riot then makes adjustments before rolling out the feature to the playerbase as a whole.


My current project emphasizes a high skill ceiling and tactical complexity. It contains some FPS elements that are (intentionally) difficult to master, and while I consider myself a decent FPS player, some high level strategies are beyond my ability to execute reliably. We've found a few ways to test competitive gameplay anyway:

AI can make a good practice partner

The most valuable tool in understanding and finetuning our game was to play with and against AI opponents with near-perfect aim and timing. Not only did it allow us to test strategies that we weren't skilled enough to execute, trying your best to beat an "infallible" opponent can lead to all sorts of insights and creative strategies.

Of course, the viability of "super-skilled" AI depends heavily on the type of game you're making, but for the purposes of balance testing, it doesn't need to be perfect, all-encompassing or fair. Don't be afraid to leave some "holes" in their abilities or have them cheat if you know what the outcome of a good move should look like.

Condense your tests

Sometimes you can only get a good feel for a mechanic if you experience it. For example, landing a complicated combo in a fighting game via the intended means plays rather differently from triggering it with a single button press, so cheating won't give you the required data. What you can do, however, is get yourself as close to the situation as possible.

If you know what aspect you want to test, set up that specific scenario and a trigger to reset game state quickly and painlessly, then play through that until you grok the play, even if you can't replicate it reliably. In the fighting game example, place your character right next to an opponent, set your combo bar to full and have at it. It doesn't matter if you mess up the combo 90% of the time, nailing it just a few times is a useful experience.

Go crazy once in a while

A good way to get a better feel for your game is to tweak the core mechanics in silly ways now and then. Set the global damage multiplier to 1000%, or to 10%. Adjust the game speed, gravity, amount of resources, unit costs, weapon ranges, whatever will break the game in interesting ways. Try to exploit the changes and see which niche strategies might work in the "proper" game as well, and how to counter them.

Good mechanics are somewhat self-balancing

A core aspect of good game balance is setting up mechanics that counteract any one element or strategy that turns out a smidge too powerful. Whether it's by providing viable counter-picks for any option (LoL), items that alter the core game rules (MtG) or just a general system of soft counters (Starcraft), aim for a system that seeks equilibrium. It might not come to rest exactly where you predicted, but it should stabilize somewhere.

Follow similar games

Few developers have the luxury of a sufficiantly large and dedicated audience to really push the limits of competitive play. If you happen to work on Starcraft or League of Legends - congratulations, but why are you reading this? If you don't, consider picking a successful game or two that's similar to your project in some regard and following the meta, professional matches and analyses for a while. You'll pick up a lot of genre theory that might help you avoid common pitfalls or serve as a tool to examine your own project in a new light.


One very common way for developers to obtain information about balance is by interacting directly with the high-level players who have that level of skill that the developers do not. Conversations with individual players who are known to be very high skill can provide very valuable information. More "general-purpose" testing of new content is often done through some kind of beta environment, but it really depends on the type of your game whether or not information collected from it will be of significant use to you.

In League of Legends, the balance designers at Riot have relationships with a large number of high-level (professional) players that they consult with both for the current state of the game as well as potential changes that they could make to the game. The PBE is used less for balance testing and more for finding bugs with new content, as there are very few high level players consistently playing there, meaning games of entirely high level players (necessary for gaining proper knowledge for balance) are extremely rare.

For World of Warcraft, when a new raid is coming out, they have a few previews of it on their beta realm. The highest level guilds who want to be as competitive as possible in the world first race will participate in these previews and data on their performance is collected and analyzed to balance the raid further. Because these are groups of entirely high level players trying as hard as they can, the data gathered is pretty accurate for what can be expected from high level players in that raid in the future.

As far as actual balancing strategy goes, something important to remember is that it isn't the end of the world to have things be more optimal than others as long as it's a challenge to figure out and it changes every once in a while. Balance, contrary to what it might seem from the name, isn't about making everything in the game of equal power level. If the result of every decision is equal regardless of what decisions the player makes, player choice doesn't matter anymore and it sucks a lot of the fun out of the experience.

In many games (Path of Exile with its extreme complexity comes to mind), one of the things that players enjoy the most is theorycrafting new builds/heros/classes/tactics/playstyles in hopes of finding something optimal. Usually, once it is known what the best (or best few) approaches are and the metagame is more or less locked in, it's appropriate to rebalance things every once in a while to prevent things from getting too stale and giving those theorycrafters a chance to find the next "OP" thing.


One possibility is building in cheat codes to simulate higher skill levels whether possible. A developer can also ask other people (like friends) who have higher skill to try out the game and see if they find any imbalances. It also helps to look at similar games and research any balance issues they might have had or even still have currently. Game forums are often a decent source of such information, especially if you're willing to wade through pages upon pages of flamewars.


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